One of the chapters in my new book is titled The Hope Required for Courage. The phrase encapsulates a moment when, in the midst of Hitler’s occupation of Holland, the main character Sam is called upon to trust in a German to save his brother’s life. Finding hope in human decency gives Sam the courage to act.
As my brain tumbles with anxiety at what the people of Ukraine are enduring in these dark days since the Russian invasion, I can’t help considering the phrase in relation to Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky.
The heroism and resolve of the man might come from anger or faith or fear. Those would be wholly appropriate motivations as Putin steps up his attacks using cluster munitions and vacuum bombs, vile weapons that violate international laws and basic decency. But I can’t help wondering if there is more to Zelensky’s fierce determination.
I am here, he tells his country every day, assuring them of his continued existence. I am with you. Such words give hope, and such hope infuses his people with courage, and such courage has galvanized the world.
While global anger and disbelief has come out in a collective gasp of action more immediate and unified than that against Hitler’s invasion of Poland at the outset of WWII, Putin’s actions are not without precedent. He invaded Crimea eight years ago, and his continued efforts to take the Russian-separatist areas of the Donbass region were, and continue to be, violations of international laws and treatises.
So why this visceral global response? And why now?
It seems something has shifted in our psyche, and in the world, and I think it has to do with our need to speak, act and fight FOR something real and important; Ukraine specifically, and democracy in general.
Over the past years, both democratic countries and authoritarian regimes around the world have seen a string of self-serving elected officials and cartoon leaders, one, as my daughter put it, the dumb orange guy from the apprentice who became president. We’ve watched them fight vain and inane battles over social media, sniping from the bleachers and usurping the real concerns of the average person into rhetoric and ideology that often seeks only power and money. Such ‘leaders’ have sought to divide and destroy. They have not been FOR anything, have not given us a vision to inspire or a moral code to uphold.
We’ve not been immune in Canada, most of us mystified by a trucker convoy that paralyzed the downtown of our capital city and disrupted trade worth millions at our borders. Instead of taking a beat to assess, right wing politicians supported the ‘protest’ that sought to delegitimize the very government they are a part of. The people involved toted the goal of ‘freedom’, but in reality they were anti. . . well. . . everything. Anti- science, anti-government, anti-establishment, anti-media. It’s hard to get behind a bunch of people camped out in warm trucks, or lazing in hot-tubs on the grounds of parliament while shouting about how un-free they are. It was theatre of the absurd.
But Ukrainians standing up to the Russian onslaught; Ukrainian civilians taking up arms to defend their fragile democracy; men and women committed to something bigger than themselves with little hope of success, but determination just the same—that is galvanizing. And a leader standing with his people and willing to die for and with them—that is someone to stand with.
The bad guy miscalculated the effects of the Ukrainian resolve on the rest of us. Money, arms and support are pouring into Ukraine. The EU, NATO, even China are condemning Putin’s actions and lowering the boom with biting sanctions, no-fly areas, and freezing the billion dollar pocketbooks of Putin and his cronies. It’s been swift and unified because anyone in a democratic country who’s watched the slow erosion knows how vulnerable we all are. Even the authoritarian regimes of Orban in Hungary and Erdogen in Turkey have given Putin a hard no. They might be authoritarian but they want to be that way in a country outside the Russian sphere of influence. Freedom is a relative thing when you once suffered under Stalin.
I’m not pollyanna about this. It’s easy for us to cheer from our cozy homes while ignoring the erosion of democratic institutions globally and attacks on democracies from within. And we shoulder a collective guilt at global governmental refusal to actually fight with Ukraine on the ground. It’s all about pragmatism and not poking a beast that has his nuclear arsenal on red-alert. Fair enough.
But we can at the same time be inspired by the Ukrainian president’s leadership in a world short of convictions, his resolve despite the truth of his odds, and actions that have pulled the Western world along in a fight for a greater ideal. We can recognize the hope and raw courage it takes to be Volodymyr Zelensky.